Sunday, April 10, 2011

Morality Is Not Objective

Morality, the intrinsic sense of right and wrong, is not objective. If there were a single fount of morality then surely we would be able to trace it back to the head. Our connection to that fountainhead would necessarily correlate to our morality. That's not what we see in churches. That's not what we see in mixed (secular and non-secular) society. And that's not what we see in cultures largely untouched by Abrahamic faiths. Morality is the adhesive between social creatures in the struggle for finite resources. Sometimes we cooperate. Sometimes we compete. Usually we do both.

It is a balancing act between perceived self interest, varying degrees of loyalty to various group with which we self-identify (in-groups) and perceived out-groups. In any given situation we have to consider what is best for our self, what is best for our group(s) (family, employer, political party, nation, denomination, neighborhood, etc.) and what forces or entities encroach on our self- or group-interest. This is the way of all social creatures.

But this is a motivator that works primarily at an emotional level. And like most emotions, reasoning beings can intellectually overrule their feelings. Well, theoretically. When resources become more available at the self level we tend to be more charitable to the group. When resources become more available at the group level we tend to expect to benefit personally. When we and our group are doing well we tend to be less hostile to minor encroachment. So too do we reduce our hostility to out-groups when we recognize they are merely a more remote extension of our in-groups.

In addition to the emotional responsibility we feel toward our groups we can also understand and appreciate the benefits of an official civil structure based on codified ethics, rules and laws. While these go hand-in-hand with morality and tend to serve similar functions they are artificial constructions, both extragenic and extrinsic.

If we want to credit a capricious ghost in the sky for our morality (intrinsic selfless social responsibility) but not our selfishness we still have to speculate where that selfishness came from. Assuming we were created, and the god did not put selfishness in us, where did that extra ingredient come from? Were there more fingers in the pie than were reported in the Judeo-Christian creation myths? God and divine creation are very poor explanations for the visceral gymnastics we experience when our various interests are in conflict.

Apologists argue that without an objective source there can be no morality, or perhaps that it is meaningless or that there can be no true justice. But morality is not something that comes to us, it is something that comes from us. It is a balance of interests which are ultimately self-interest. It may seem counter-intuitive to credit self-interest for the creation of morality and selflessness. It may seem vulgar to think that our finest examples of humanity are merely extensions of our basest drives. Though the idea may be hard to stomach, it is staring back at us with pedantic patience. Morality is an intrinsic emotional balancing of often conflicting personal interests in a social environment. While Creation skips over the creation of selfishness, evolution explains both selfishness and selflessness, lo, they are the same.

If everything we could ever need or desire were infinitely available, there would be no competition for resources. Nor would there be an evolutionary selection force for cooperation, other than reproduction. But even reproduction is a need/desire.

When I first recognized that I was no longer a theist I came to the conclusion that morality is a lie and that we need rely only on ethics. Some years later I realized that ethics is a construct that we build. Ethics are cultural and intellectual. And yet even children have an innate sense of justice when objectively observing social exchanges. While they may not be able to articulate why something is fair or unfair, but they are good at identifying injustice when they are a disinterested third party. When they are not disinterested, they tend to make excuses favoring their self or their friend/family.

My first guess is that we are using the term "morality" to represent two different but similar and overlapping ideas. Traditionally, morality is an system of conduct based on ideas of absolute right and wrong. Additionally, such a code of morality is or was typically ascribed as divine edict. That which is permissible by that doctrine is moral. That which is forbidden by that doctrine is immoral. There is also the common belief that morality is ingrained in us by supernatural authority as a sense of right an wrong.

In the absence of divine authority "ethical" and "unethical" should carry the same weight as "moral" and "immoral". Yet they do not. Why is that? What is the difference between ethics and morality? If "morality" deserves more weight than "ethics" we should be able to say why.

When we speak of morality we tend to suppose that good and bad, right and wrong are absolute (or nearly so) and must be recognized. We seem to be appealing to an inescapable source of discernment. When we speak of ethics we are never referring to an innate sense of right and wrong, rather mutually accepted rules for civility or specific activities. Ethics tend to be based on common values. These values are not arbitrary or prescribed. These values are the description of what most people feel intrinsically about what is good or bad, right or wrong. It is not a matter of what is believed, understood or reasoned. It is a matter of what is felt. Is there a word for this raw, unreasoned, pre-intellectual, intuitive, subjective sense of what is good and bad, right and wrong, just and unjust?

What is that word?

I use the label "morality" for that unreasoned sense which is within us as the foundation of social responsibility. If we had another word for it I would use it happily. It is unfortunate that we do not. The traditional definition of morality as a moral code of conduct leaves the subject wide open to the theist's favorite tool of misinformation: the equivocation.

Where I describe morality as "an intrinsic emotional balancing" I refer to that innate feeling of right and wrong that triggers our conscious intellectual consideration of what is right and wrong. In this sense morality is not our end judgment, not our conclusion of what is right and wrong, but rather our initial motivation (in any given situation) for considering what is best.

Before we devote any objective reasoning to a "moral" or ethical question, it is likely that the more subjective regions of the brain have already assigned values to the variables.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Ten Commandments, Remarkably Undivine

People continue, unchallenged, to cite the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament as the herald and pinnacle of human morality. The Ten Commandments is strong evidence that Yahweh was either made up by frustrated uneducated old men or that the creator of the universe has the mentality of a frustrated uneducated old man.

1. I am your god Have no gods before me. (Not “the” god but “your” god. Are there other gods to have before you? Research on “Who wrote the Bible” explains this one. You should look into that.)

2. Make no graven image (No statuary? It’s easy to see how important that is. Right, Barbie?)

3. Take not my name in vain (OMFG. WTF. Petty and insecure? Or is it just crowd control?)

4. Keep the Sabbath holy (Why is it OK to allow any unholy (or less holy) days? Is it because if you’re not in temple they can’t squeeze or control you.)

The first four protect only the religion and religious leaders. NO ONE is harmed by ignoring the first four commandments. And Jesus said you could ignore number 4 if you had a good reason. So he contradicted his timeless god-self. Furthermore, when asked which of the commandments we should keep to, Rabbi Jesus doesn’t mention any of the first four. Hmm. (Matthew 19:17-19, Luke 18:20, Mark 10:19)

5. Honor Mom and Dad (Vague and unconditional)

6. Don’t kill (Potentially good but doesn’t protect non-Israelites or sinners)

7. Philander not. (Good advice, bad commandment. Also, the bible suggests the severity of the offense depends only on who is doing it. Male adulterer: bad. Female adulterer: Kill the whore!)

8. Don’t steal (also doesn’t include stealing from non-Israelites, especially if you’ve killed them)

9. Don’t lie (the ultimate irony… Did god commit the first lie in Genesis 2:17 “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.”)

10. Don’t covet (Don’t desire what other people have? That’s just un-American and also hypocritical coming from a privileged shaman class or an entity that created everything from nothing.)

It is disgusting that anyone considers the Ten Commandments to be worthy of consideration, let alone reverence. This most exalted and timeless example of the “moral” superiority of the abrahamic religious systems could be vastly improved by most modern educated adults.

What about rape or statutory rape? What about slavery, which is actually acceptable throughout the rest of bible? What about non-lethal violence? What about domestic violence? Why is it that violating any one of the commandments is punishable by death depending on interpretation and who is in charge? Contemptible are the Ten Commandments and the backward blood-thirsty archaic desert dwellers that made them up.

What would you add, remove or change from the Ten Commandments?

Monday, April 4, 2011

Quran burning

Fundamentalist cleric Terry Jones made headlines with his plan for an "International Burn a Koran Day." Jones ostensibly canceled the event but managed another public display (International Judge the Koran Day) that ended with quran flambé. As a result several UN workers and 2 US soldiers have been killed abroad in some ill conceived attempt at retribution. AP article on Yahoo here.

Sam Harris does well in speaking my mind here:

By placing ANY responsibility on Terry Jones we are assuming that islam is not the religion of peace and its adherents are not capable of morality or humanity on a person by person basis.

Even if we assume that muslims are semi-human hornets, should we ignore the nest in our midst and merely eschew provocation? The real problem is much harder to solve. By ignoring it we allow the problem to fester, mutate and grow. Focusing on Jones' stupid grandstanding diverts our attention from an issue... we were already ignoring.

If moderate and liberal muslims don't want islam associated with acts of violence they need to do a lot more than remain silent in the wake of these events. If they don't take their religion back from the fundamentalists then I am quite happy to assume the louder more violent voices are the true representatives of islam. How can the apparent silence of moderates be interpreted as anything anything other than tacit approval?

Terry Jones is just one more false prophet. That's not a crime in the US. I'd be more than happy to make it a crime here and everywhere. But what criteria would we use to determine falsehood? That's where we'll have a hard time finding consensus. I may not like the idea of book burning, probably due to historical correlatives. If the world wants to condemn Terry Jones for being a charlatan, grand-stander, troll, attention whore, self-important prick, asshole or something other than quran burning, I'm OK with that. If anyone wants to gag Jones because we can't hold violent muslims accountable, I'm not OK with that. This is definitely a case where the easier thing to do is not the right thing to do.

If the right thing is the hard thing and the hard thing is getting muslim hardliners to be reasonable, then we better get started.